One of the sights in Idaho on my wish list is Hell’s Canyon, a 10-mile wide chasm carved by the Snake River, dividing Oregon, Washington and Idaho. At 7,993 feet, it is North America’s deepest river gorge. There are only three roads that reach the Snake River in the canyon – two from Oregon and one from Idaho. But the road in Idaho at Pittsburgh Landing is not in the steep canyon section. The only way to see the deepest sections are by boat or from a lookout. I originally envisioned myself careening down the Snake River wearing a helmet and wielding an oar over Class III and IV rapids. But I also envisioned myself here in August. At this time of year, the white water rafts are in dry dock while the River Rats scurry south for the winter. If I wanted to peer into Hell’s Canyon, I would have to resort to “Overlook.”
In moving south toward the canyon, Hell’s Gate State Park seems like the perfect overnight stop, just 4 miles south of Lewiston. In summer months, the Gate is the start of jetboat tours down the Snake River. I had hoped some of the tours would still be running, but like many of the attractions in Idaho, September appears to be “The End.” The park is still in full operation, however. As the lowest point in Idaho at only 733 ft above sea level, it makes a warmer spot to wait out the bands of rain that are now persistently following us.
Hell’s Gate State Park sits on what was once a Nez Perce village. Some depressions still remain, the remnants of their pit houses. It was also the site where “Chief Twisted Hair” assisted Lewis and Clark in building five canoes to continue their journey down the Columbia. It took 10 days to complete five canoes. Quite an elaborate Lewis and Clark Discovery Center marks the entrance to the park. I found it interesting to learn that Clark’s maps of their 8,000 mile journey were accurate within 40 miles.
Hell’s Gate State Park is my first time in an Idaho State Park, which charges taxes on their camping rates. This has the cost ending in odd amounts like fifty-seven cents. They don’t appear to take credit cards, and I am not sure you can even write a check. So if you plan to do any camping in Idaho State Park system, make sure you bring lots of small bills, or be prepared to say “keep the change.”
I am eager to move further south toward Riggins, the location of the 17 mile gravel road that travels up to the Hell’s Canyon Overlook, Heaven’s Gate. This winding, narrow gravel “Seven Devils Road” is the only overlook down into the canyon. Weather is changing rapidly for the worse due to a freak storm moving across the Pacific Northwest after Typhoon Songda hitched a ride on the gulf stream and slammed into the Washington and Oregon coasts. This weather system is now moving toward Idaho, determined to foil my plans for a Heaven’s Gate view!
Once in Riggins, we stop at the Hell’s Canyon National Recreation Area Field Office. I tell the woman behind the desk of our plans to drive the 17 mile road, to which she responds “I don’t recommend it.” My heart sinks. “Not even with a four wheel drive?” I ask. She tells me that snow and high winds with hurricane-force gusts are expected for the overlook later today. I look out the window, and not a limb is moving on the tree outside. I tell her we are gonna make a run for it. She says “Okay, but turn around at the first sign of snow.”
The road is in fairly good condition, though steep and narrow. With almost a 7,000 ft gain in elevation, I find myself apologizing to the Little Tracker more than usual these days. But he handles it like a champ, never missing a beat all the way to the summit.
We can’t help but laugh, as we reach the final stage of the climb and the view is socked in. If we are approaching Heaven’s Gate, then this must be the “white tunnel” of death, because we can’t see a thing but a wall of white. After posing for a few humorous photos of the “overlook,” I tell Don I’m going for the 0.2 mile climb to the summit. Clouds be damned, I’m not coming all this way without “seeing” the top.
The trail is now under a light dusting of snow (so much for “turn around at the first sign of snow!”) and there is not another soul for miles around, except for my brother waiting patiently in the parking lot, the Tracker heater on full blast.
In the muffled snow, sounds become magnified. The crunch and squeak of the freshly fallen snow beneath my boots. The “tink, tink, tink” of the snowflakes landing on the branches overhead. The sound of my labored breath as I climb at an elevation my body has not experienced in a year. I reach the Fire Tower, elev 8,429, where supposedly you can see four states; Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Montana. Today, I am lucky to see silhouettes of the Seven Devil Range and the undulating walls of the canyon below. But I don’t care. Being at the top all alone is my own version of Heaven!
“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
― Henry David Thoreau